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5th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 5, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Governor Spitzer’s proposal to ease identification requirements for a New York State driver’s license is turning into an astounding pile-up. I can appreciate the arguments on both sides of the issue. The Motor Vehicle Bureau is ill-equipped to enforce immigration laws, but should we be officially validating the identity of individuals who are here illegally?

The problem comes from the custom we have developed in the United States of using a driver’s license as a de facto national identity card. This predates September 11, 2001. The license is often required when cashing checks, buying alcoholic beverages, purchasing tobacco products, or even registering to vote.

The use of the driver’s license for identification purposes is so widespread that it became necessary for New York State to issue an official non-driver photo identification card. It has also become one of the pieces of identification accepted to board airplanes and other forms of transport, and even to enter some office buildings.

The validity of driver’s licenses is considered an important safeguard to maintain homeland security. That is why the states are required under the terms of the federal REAL ID Act of 2005 to issue identification cards by 2011 that comply with certain standards, among them the reliable collection by the states of social security numbers from applicants.

What Governor Spitzer proposes will take the standard-issue New York State drivers license out of compliance with the REAL ID law. This is what Mayor Bloomberg suggested, which sent Mr. Spitzer off in a well-publicized - even bizarre - tirade against the mayor. Mayors Koch and Giuliani, two exceptionally level heads, have joined Mr. Bloomberg in opposing the Spitzer initiative.

New Yorkers are smart to be concerned because by 2013, REAL ID compliant identification will be required at all airports, federal buildings, and atomic power plants. If deprived of the use of the New York state driver’s license as identification, city residents may need a passport just to fly to Buffalo.

Mr. Spitzer, besieged by political foes and journalists over the Troopergate scandal, was eager to change the topic. While he did gain traction with immigrant groups, a poll issued yesterday by the Zogby organization reveals that a majority of New York State voters oppose the Spitzer initiative by a 58% to 35% margin. Even city voters, more liberal and pro-immigrant by and large, oppose the Spitzer plan by a 52% to 45% margin.

In attempting to justify his action, the governor cites public safety. His theory is that having perhaps hundreds of thousands of unlicensed drivers on the road is unsafe. He disingenuously equates drivers who are unlicensed with those who are uninsured. We do not insure drivers, but rather vehicles, though insurance companies generally ask for the names of the primary drivers of each vehicle.

Since one must have insurance to register an automobile, and insurance companies are required to notify the state if the insurance on a particular vehicle lapses, getting uninsured drivers off the road is but a matter of enforcing existing rules. If indeed auto safety were his concern, the governor would more logically seek to crack down on uninsured cars by increasing law enforcement personnel and stepping up enforcement procedures.

I recently learned something that for me puts this whole controversy into perspective. A friend of mine dates a fellow, a foreign national, who has been here as an exchange student. Perfectly legal. His New York State driver’s license is stamped “temporary” in red, identifying him as a special case. Things have gotten so bad that we contemplate lifting requirements for those who have ignored the law, while segregating a class of those complying.

It seems to me that we can alleviate the logistical problems faced by those here illegally not by diminishing the value of the conventional drivers license and ID documents currently issued, but by creating a separate class of documents.

Just as we created an identification card for New Yorkers who don’t drive, we could issue a new card for those who don’t qualify for it or don’t want official identification. Call it a “Certificate of Driver Competence.” The only requirements would be a New York State address, passing a written test, a vision test, and the normal pre-licensing course and road test. One could receive a document that certifies the individual as having the skills necessary to drive a car. It could contain only a photo and current address, nothing more, not even a date of birth.

Such a card would be stamped as being invalid for identification purposes other than operating a motor vehicle.

There will be those who would oppose this plan as a scheme that would stigmatize those here illegally. But what Mr. Spitzer is proposing will stigmatize all New Yorkers by greatly diminishing the value of the state’s official identification for the vast majority of us.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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